Best Art Film

Buddy and I are very excited to announce that the MPA Project won Best Art Film at the Three Minute Film Fest presented by The Tucson Fringe Festival for an excerpt of our dance film “Reflections.” A huge thanks to our  artistic collaborators Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, Starla Cocio Topar, and Maria Granillo. Also a huge thanks to our#1 supporter and partner Salvador Martinez. Buddy and I are very grateful! #tucsonfringe

 

“Artists Raising Kids” Webinar

Yesterday I participated in a Creative Capital Webinar entitled “Artists Raising Kids” by choreographer Andrew Simonet. I must say, when I first signed up for the webinar I was pretty skeptical, especially after reading the description, which said something to the effect of “You can always make more money, but not more time.” What?!?! I don’t even make money! Do you know how under-served the West is sir? Running my company, I work 80 hours a week but get paid for 2. What do you mean more money?

So great, I thought, what is this white male choreographer from the East Coast (Philadelphia) going to teach me about being an artist raising a kid?

Nevertheless, I did the webinar for research for this project fully expecting to eye roll the entire time, but it wasn’t that bad. First off, the presenter acknowledged his male privilege stating, “…pressures of female artists and mothers are more intense and different that male artists,” and that stems from biases in both families and the art world. Can I get an amen? He also stated we “live in a culture that does not support artists well and we live in a culture that does not support parents well.” Again, well said. No acknowledgement of his regional or race/ethnic privilege was made but acknowledging the gender role expectations (grounded in patriarchy) in the arts and in families was a start.

The rest of the seminar he presented some research and personal narrative on how he worked out his artist parent role. This consisted of a lot of interpersonal relationship dynamics between he, his partner, and the other adults that help raise his children. A la “This is how we structure our day” or “this is how we communicate.” Yea, none of those pointers were going to go over real well with my Mexican-born husband and the gender roles and expectations he brings to the table (see, that race/ethnicity component so important).

But one of the things that he did say that stuck with me is that after he had his children, he left his company. He left because he could not balance the demands of the company, which he was co-directing with two other people, (unlike me who runs the whole thing solo!) with his role as a parent. There was not enough time to be an artist, parent, and co-direct a company, so he walked away from the company. That resonated with me. Now that my company is on a restructuring hiatus, I am actually spending quality time with my son on a consistent basis. Without the pressure of being a one woman non-profit arts organization, I have much more of that most precious resource: time. The artist parent thing seems almost do-able now without the burden of the organization and managing other artists. I will be an artist my whole life, but I will only have my son’s childhood for a short while.

The webinar closed out with some links to resources, which I will observe and blog about later. But for now the idea of dismantling my arts organization and becoming a solo artist seems like a breath of fresh air. And the best thing to do for me and my family.2013-08-01-22-15-43

“Isn’t that right Roberto?” *

It was the summer of 2015 when Buddy became my scene partner.

A colleague of mine offered a free acting workshop that met for a few hours once a week. Knowing that I was going to work with a theater company the following season, I decided to take the workshop to learn the actors process.

We were assigned scene work, and guess what? I cannot memorize lines! Let me re-phrase that; I have an extremely difficult time memorizing lines when movement is not attached to them. I have performed and choreographed pieces with spoken word, but just memorizing a script, that is too much for me! My brain doesn’t think that way.

I found a solution in my seven-year-old son. I figured, the words on the scripts were simple and easy. I remembered Buddy needed to practice his reading over the summer. I knew I needed to memorize my lines. And that is how Buddy became my scene partner.

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We practiced lines at home and in the car on the way to and from summer school. He would hold the sheet and read the lines while I said mine. And he would correct me every time I made a mistake. He even read as the character Pedro in an early version of the play “Ghosts of Lote Bravo” by Hilary Bettis. The play was making its world premiere during the upcoming season at my colleague’s theater company, and an early version of the script was being used in the workshop. I was assigned an age appropriate scene and decided to practice my lines with Buddy.  He was so excited about the part that he came to the final day of the workshop to see performances of the various scenes from the play. He had the lines memorized better than I did! HE gave me a thumbs up and said I did a good job. What a cutie!

*Quote from the “Ghosts of Lote Bravo” by Hilary Bettis.

Lift your HEAD, drop your SHOULDERS, nurse a KNEE injury, AND pointe your TOES: Returning to Dance

When I returned to technique classes after giving birth to my son, I remember crying in my car on the drive home every night after class. My body was different. It was new and it did not work the way it used to. My center was completely gone. I had no balance. I was insanely sore; most days I was so sore it hurt to breathe! And instead of embracing my body, loving my body for giving and sustaining life over the past year of breastfeeding and 9 months of creating a child, I cursed my body. I loathed my body, I hated my body. I wanted it to be thinner, more muscular, more flexible, and able to do the things it could do a few years ago. It was a long road back.

My pregnancy also caused a chronic knee injury that has sidelined me more than once and has almost made me walk away from dance forever. A knee injury aggravated by driving in a car or riding in a plane too long, or sitting in seminars for eight hours a day. A knee injury aggravated by heels. Gone are the days of my sexy high heel shoe fetish. A knee injury aggravated by walking my kiddo to the bus stop. A knee injury that I will nurse the rest of my life. Essentially relaxed ligament in the feet + spreading hips for childbirth = sciatic nerve pain = weak knee = knee injury.

When I was pregnant, my tendons and ligaments got all gushy, as they do with most pregnant women. My feet “grew” and my arches fell. My feet went flat, especially the right one. I was not aware of this particular change in my body when I went back to technique classes. I started training with my new feet, which led to many problems on the right side of my body including: an over developed vastus lateralis, an underdeveloped vastus medius,a tight ITB band, and an atrophied piriformus.  All of this resulted in the tracking of my patella towards the very tight vastus lateralis muscle when I straighten my knee.In other words, my knee cap pulls out of place (sliding up to the right) every time I straighten my knee. There is no cure. Surgery only has a 60% success rate and it involves detaching one of the four quadricep muscles from my knee. Bad news for a me. Bad news for any dancer. Making this injury worse, my bad right knee is even weaker because I have problems with my sciatic nerve, a tight common peroneal nerve, and a larger than normal degree of between my tibia, patella and femur (that’s genetic).  These days, dance is an uphill battle. I will be doing physical therapy for the rest of my life. Lots and lots of nerve flossing.I was told by an orthopedic surgeon, I am lucky my other knee isn’t giving me problems, yet…. I could be only a matter of time.

When my son was three years old, an older mother told me that it takes about six years after the birth of a child for a mother to get her body back. Three years in, I had finally, although begrudgingly, come to terms with my new body and was okay with where it was now. After years of training in modern dance technique, my technical capabilities were finally back to where they were and then some. I started training in ballet, which I had hated in my teens and during my time at the university. I have grown to love love the challenges of ballet technique these days. Seven years later, I can finally fit back into my pre-pregnancy jeans, although they are still a little tight and will never quite fit the way they did before. Hips spread for childbirth, what can I say? But I am much more loving and accepting of my body, my stretch marks, the saggy skin on my stomach, my canas, and my saggy pancake boobs. Because hey, my body gave and sustained life. And it can still fly across the floor with 14-year-olds…for now…

When my father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, I made a promise to myself to continue to dance regardless of any company or choreography that I may or may not do in my future. Dance is a great way to exercise my body and my mind and why not do something I love to stay healthy?  I decided I would rather have a knee replacement in my future and stay active dancing than stop dancing and become less physically active, increasing my chances of getting a cancer (I already have a 50% genetic predisposition). And, surprisingly, dance is one of the forms that is least likely to aggravate my knee injury because it is done with precision and control. Technique.

Nowadays, I do my best to honor my body and use dance as a way to keep my body healthy. I try to silence the messages of the “ideal” dancer body type that my 5ft curvy frame will never be. I take things with a grain of salt and forgive myself in technique classes when I cannot get in and out of the floor as quickly as the 14-year-old I am going across the floor with.

It is a journey going on seven years with many more to come.

The Good Ole Boys Club

My father once told me, “Mi’jita, business is made on the greens, not in the boardroom. Remember that. Business is made on the greens.” That was my father’s way of telling me at the ripe old age of eight that business was made on the golf course. In other words, I needed to network and cultivate relationships to be successful in any field. It was also his way of telling me that I should be at the table. From my father, who could be misogynistic in other ways, there was never any mention of what I could not do because of my gender. I was raised in an environment where gender was not, and should not, be a barrier. I was told to be on the greens.

Fast forward about 20 years and I am at an out-of-town arts gathering with a handful of other artists from my area. Social hour begins and a group of whom I would consider to be peers and colleagues walk down to the area of the late night art happening to socialize. It was a small gathering of fellow performing artists and/or artistic directors, most of us working with the same populations or themes in our work in the same geographic area. Did I mention all of these colleagues/peers are male?

Later on into the evening, the alcohol and the testosterone begins to flow. I see my colleagues demonstrating more and more aggressive, almost college “Bro”-like behaviors: bumping their chests together, headlocks, the occasional punch here and there. I grew up with two brothers, I can recognize male bonding when I see it. Soon, this group of men and I, along with two female colleagues, an arts administrator from a neighboring state and a dancer from a nearby city, are all walking back in the dark to the area where we are staying. I had just met the female colleagues that night; I had known the male colleagues for years; and worked with most of them. Together, we walk back and as we walk, the men being to pull away from the pack and start walking faster and faster until they leave the three women behind. It isn’t subtle. It isn’t on accident. They don’t stop or slow down. In fact, the look over their shoulders as they hurry on to make sure we are falling behind. It is obvious they wanted to ditch us.

And there’s the thing: there went Tucson’s Chicano (emphasis on the “O”) performing arts scene. There they went to the arts version of the “green.” And I was not invited. Excluded. I am almost certain the primary reason I was excluded at moment was because of my gender. My dad didn’t teach me about gender exclusions on the green!

The next day, I sit next to one of these male colleagues and I am very vocal about my displeasure about how male dominated the Chicano performing arts scene is in Tucson and the events that happened the night before. Perhaps he feels bad or knows that there is validity to my observations because he and one of the other male colleague invite me out for a consolatory beer that afternoon. I go. Maybe they felt bad. Consolation prize.

Deals are made on the greens. Collaborations and projects are born out of those moments. The greens my father talked about were not going to exclude me because of gender.

What happens at that time when I am excluded from the greens, not invited to the greens, experience barriers – like lack of childcare – that may prevent me from being on the greens? Do I look for other greens? Do I create my own greens? Well, I tried that with my dance company and it is hard. There are so many barriers and people who don’t “understand.” Too much patriarchy still exists in the Chicano communities in Tucson and this patriarchy is consciously and unconsciously reinforced every single day.  What do I do when my generation of the good ole boys club does not see me because of my gender?

Shoulding All Over Myself

The morning is a bit of a mad dash at one point, but not too much different than when I was working at the University of AZ. I get the kiddo and I dressed and ready and out the door by 7am. I am headed to day one of a 3-day seminar for the EmcArts Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators fellowship being held in my town. No dance clothes for me today. I actually get dressed and put on makeup. But it is relatively stress free and all is well. My hubby is taking off the next three afternoons to pick up Buddy from the bus stop and take him to his various after-school activities and help him with homework until I come home. Very helpful for me.

The seminar ends at 5pm and happy hour begins immediately right outside of the conference room door. I stick around for a while to discuss the material for the day and to (re)connect with some of the out of town fellows, since this is our last convening as a cohort. Tuesday nights is when I usually dance. I have a technique class and rehearsal tonight and though I let the teacher/choreographer know I’ll miss this evening, I’m still debating what to do.

My dance clothes are in the car. I really should leave by 5:30 to make it to class on time. Maybe I can push it to 5:45. I’ll see how it goes. Given that I literally sat all day, and sitting is the worst thing anyone can do for their body, let alone an (ageing? aged?) dancer, I should really go to class. I am just going to be sitting and eating the next three days. And I missed class last Tuesday for a grant panel, where I just sat and ate for like 8 hours counting the driving and the dinner. I haven’t been taking a lot of classes since my dad passed because I want to cry when I dance. I am not going to be dancing over the holidays because we are going out of town. I am really going to get out of shape. I really should go to class. I should leave in 30 minutes.

Time passes. Interesting, meaningful and important conversations are happening. Sharing ideas, building relationships. Politics, gender roles, cultural competencies, the arts. Suddenly, I am the only seminar participant from Tucson left. I get invited to the dinner that was originally intended only for the out of town fellows.

I should stay for the dinner. It is a great networking opportunity. And it is good food, free food.

All of these thoughts fly through my mind in half a second.

A few years ago, I would act on “should” without hesitation. The internal dialogue in my head about what I should be doing, especially in regard to dance and my company, dominated my decision making. But I am slowly learning to stop “shoulding” all over myself. It is a process.

I pause. Take a deep breath. As an INTJ personality type (the seminar participants are all given the Meyers-Briggs test), I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and turn off the internal monologue: “Shoulds” are calling, no shaming me into going to class/rehearsal; they are talking me into staying. I silence my thoughts and listen for my intuition. It tells me to leave and go home.

Without hesitation or regret, I do. Yet there is one more “should” on the ride home.

I really should drive the 40 minutes round trip to my best friend’s house to pick up the chocolate chip cookies she offered to give me because Buddy’s teacher’s birthday is tomorrow and I don’t have time to make or get a present.

But I don’t go. Instead, I join my husband and son at his elementary school’s holiday house. When I get there, my son has a present for me. Later, I have dinner with my family. Silencing my “shoulds.” I’ve made my decision.

Sharing a Stage, Saying Goodbye

It was a pop-up performance, outside, in a courtyard at a hotel in Phoenix. I was dancing by myself that Saturday. The piece started in silence but moved into music. Guerilla style, I brought my own stereo, I had no sound person. Nor did I have childcare. On top of all this, my dad had died the Tuesday before this Saturday performance, losing his four-year battle with cancer.

I originally choreographed the solo, “Ojos Negros,” in 2013 as an ode to my great-grandmother who passed away two days shy of her 101st birthday. The piece used a voice recording of her talking about death. The recording was from an oral history I did with my great-grandmother thirteen years earlier as research for a senior project that later evolved into my master’s thesis. In 2015, knowing that my dad was nearing the end, I dusted off the piece and prepared to perform it again. I wanted to hear my great grandmother’s voice and her wisdom about death as I said goodbye to my dad. I wanted her strength and the strength of my ancestors to get me through this time of transition and letting go.

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There I was under the bright desert sky with wispy white clouds, dancing outside, my preferred stage, looking up for my dad, missing him, scattering the holy dirt of my homeland all over the flagstone of a hotel in the Valley of the Sun. Buddy was with me, just seven years old, and he was the one who ran the music for me that day. I trained him before the performance, during all those days when I would bring him to rehearsals with me, no childcare. He started and ended my music right on cue. When the piece was over, he joined me on “stage,” grabbed my hand, and together we bowed.

It was the first time I shared a stage with my son, performing a piece honoring our ancestors, a piece saying goodbye to my dad, his Grampy. And it was the best performance of that piece to date.

* photo by the Arizona Dance Coalition

Dining Room Compositions

My son is in piano lessons. When Buddy practices piano at home, he is usually struggling to learn a new piece. However, on days like today, when he has practiced enough so that his assigned pieces are memorized and he has very few mistakes, we turn our dining room into a stage that rivals Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center.

Buddy will set up his favorite toy Doggie Meh* as the conductor. Perched on top of the piano, Doggie Meh directs the show’s star pianist and musician, Buddy. Buddy also plays the role of lighting designer, choreographer, and artistic director. Using what he calls “color lights,” a gift he received from Santa last Christmas, and a strobe light that he bought with money he earned doing extra chores, Buddy sets the mood by carefully crafting his light design. Between pieces, he will coach me: “No Mama, not like that. Do this one,” mimicking my improvised movements. He tends to prefer my improvised ballet-esque moves more than my more modern and comedic movements. I do my best to be a good dancer and compositional improvisationalist as well as props master. I dance around the dining room and kitchen areas with various props (anything lying near or on the dining room table is fair game – backpacks, lunch boxes, utensils, the newspaper, etc), trying my best to capture the musicality of his short pieces as he practices his staccatos and legatos. Different movement qualities. Different music qualities. Mama and Buddy studying the same things. Staccato. Legato. Buoyant. Laughter. Frivolous movements. Nonsensical theatrical ideas. Our dining room, our home, becomes a true creative space. Buddy and I have a piano practice quite unlike any other. Piano practice becomes a blessing–allowing me to create and play and rehearse with my child all at one.

*Doggie Meh is featured in “Reflections” the MPA Project dance film.

I’m Not the Only One with a Show

The last week of March 2015. Tech week for Dancing the Mural. I have 5 artists flying or driving in from out of state: two of them arriving the day of dress rehearsal. I have pieces that are being finalized and set during tech week. I have dress rehearsal. I have long rehearsals leading up to the show. I have three fifth graders from a South Tucson elementary school and one community member performing with us. I have a crew that needs to load in and completely strike (as in take all of the equipment to an offsite storage unit) the show in our site specific location every night. I have a very heavy “mobile” stage that needs moving. My phone number is the box office number and I have tickets I need to print and a box office to organize. I have to make sure volunteers and front of house have things taken care of. I have to worry about security, costumes, and rides of artists. I need to make sure this mobile mural is finished and gets to the location of the performance. And I am also dancing in four out of seven choreographies premiering in the show.

I am the epitome of heroic leader, which by the way, is the standard model for modern and contemporary dance companies. One dynamic leader – a la Martha Graham, José Limón, Alvin Ailey – the driving force pushing a company, an art form, the dance field forward. The model has not changed much for the dance community since then. So here I am, juggling and struggling in an outdated model; a one-woman force carrying a company on my back, singlehandedly running a community-engaged multimedia art performance.

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And my org was nominated for a Governor’s Art Award so I have to travel the 4 hours to Phoenix and back on Tuesday night of Tech week, in the middle of the madness, in the off chance that we win (we did not). And the EmcArts program, which I am now a fellow of, changed the date of the first Arizona seminar to the morning of the show’s opening, so now I have to attend that. (I show up late and the facilitators are not impressed.) I have a million and one things to do, fires to put out, artists to calm and reassure, details to smooth over. I am at my wit’s end. The house is a mess. I am a mess. Spread so thin. Being pulled in a thousand ways.

 

And I am not the only one with a show. Thursday morning, the day of dress rehearsal, at 9am, my son has a school play. The annual Easter performance. I never miss his shows, which usually run 2 mornings. Knowing full well I can’t make the Friday morning show (given that dress rehearsal will run late, I am directing/producing/performing in a show that evening, and I am already booked for this EmcArts thing), I go to the Thursday morning show.

It was a cute show. He was a roman solider. I was exhausted. But I arranged the company’s Thursday rehearsal schedule around that show so I could make it. I think I went straight to rehearsal after his show. I think I worked straight from 10am-midnight that night. I think. I can’t quite remember.

But I was there. Tired. Exhausted. But I was there.

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You Look Happy Today

This past summer into fall, I worked every single day from August 3-October 3. I had a total of 40 rehearsals and 14 performances plus grants, photo shoots, out-of-town board meetings, production meetings, guest lectures, and award ceremonies. I worked straight through. No days off. All of Buddy’s after school activities – swimming, piano lessons, and tae kwon do – were canceled during that time frame because my work schedule was so intense that I could not manage with his regular activities. In general rehearsals were twice a day, 9am-noon, then 6pm-10pm. Saturdays were 3 hours of technique classes, then afternoon rehearsals until 6pm, Sundays 10am-6pm. I was never home. I did not see my family. The house was (is) a mess. There were many many nights that my boys ate cereal or worse, fast food for dinner because I was not home to cook. And, as I may have mentioned before, my husband may prepare a meal once every six months or so. I am lucky laundry was done.

August 3-October 3 was a long time. I was so sleep deprived; the dark circles under my eyes were so large and so dark my husband said it looked like I had black eyes. I was grumpy every morning. Sleep deprived.

It’s cyclical. The never ending workload, the crazy rehearsal schedules, all my time, energies, and talents essentially donated to small non-profit arts orgs. This cycle takes a consistent toll on me and my family.

After the last show I produced for my company closed, Buddy mentioned to me a few times in about a two-week period, “Oh you look happy today” or “You are smiling” or “You don’t have a mean face.”

I knew I was stressed, but I had no idea that my son was seeing me with angry stressed out faces for months on end. And that it had such an impact on him that he noticed the difference when I actually had a pleasant expression and smiled.

My poor baby.

In my experience(s), there is a lack of support systems for women choreographers, women of color and Latinas in the arts, and artist mothers. I am all three. I am torn because there are so few Latinas in dance and choreography working in the themes and aesthetics with which I work. I want to keep working, fight the good fight, and have a positive impact on the field. Yet, I wonder if it is worth it.